EVENSVILLE — It is said “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
Mother Nature did her part Friday, with a cold rain beforehand and drizzle hanging around as the temperatures plunged low enough you could see your breath.
The fifth-ranked Cleveland Blue Raiders did the rest, running all over Rhea County for 309 rushing yards in a 31-7 blowout.
The victory brought the sixth-ranked Eagles’ season to a close with just their second loss in a dozen games. Last fall it was a 1-8 Rhea team that stunned Cleveland 29-27 in the regular season finale at Benny Monroe Stadium to prevent the Raiders from making the postseason.
While Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford downplayed the “pay back” theory leading up the TSSAA second round playoff game, the Raiders fans were shouting out “That’s for last year” as the clock ran down.
Advancing to the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2002, Cleveland finds another familiar foe whom they will get a chance to repay for a loss earlier this season.
Now 9-3 on the season, the Raiders will make the short trip to Collegedale to face eighth-ranked and fellow District 5-AAA member East Hamilton. The Hurricanes are 10-2 after a touchdown with 16 seconds remaining gave them a 23-16 win for their first-ever victory over arch-rival Ooltewah. The Owls had won the pervious three meetings between the school, including a 28-26 battle earlier this season that ended up giving Ooltewah the District 5-AAA championship.
“It’s great that we have so many of our district teams in the playoffs. Going to East Hamilton will be exciting,” proclaimed Coach Crawford. “They are a very good team, a step up in competition than the first two weeks (of the playoffs). It will be a great atmosphere.”
Although Rhea County defeated East Hamilton 27-24 four weeks ago, Crawford reminded that his squad dropped a 21-20 heartbreaker back on Oct. 4.
Playing some of its best football of the season, Cleveland has outscored its first two playoff opponents by a combined score of 73-15, putting up more than 400 yards of offense in both, while allowing White and Rhea Counties just 240 yards of combined offense.
While in Sparta two weeks ago, the Raiders had 312 passing yards and 135 on the ground, but Friday in Evensville, the numbers were reversed with Cleveland rolling up 309 yards on the ground and just 117 in the air.
“It’s all about what the defense is giving you,” Coach Crawford assessed. “Rhea had shown they often drop eight (players) in pass coverage, so that doesn’t leave you much room to throw it, but it opened up our running game.”
Getting the majority of their yards after contact, the junior tandem of Raekwon Bunion and TJ Parker carried the ball 19 times apiece with Bunion going for 141 yards and Parker surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 129, plus two touchdowns. Bunion also pulled in a trio of passes for 56 yards.
“When both are healthy, they make a good pair. Raekwon has been hurt some, and even though he’s still not 100 percent, he was running very hard (Friday),” praised Coach Crawford. “Even though he’s only 155 pounds, TJ is a very physical runner, plus he can spin and twist to get away from tacklers.”
“The offensive line did a great job of blocking and ran a lot to Parker Smith’s side,” the coach added. “He (Smith) and Eric Goodwin (who has missed the last two games with a broken collar bone) have done a tremendous job all season of blocking from the slot receiver position. They are unsung heroes of our offense.”
Coach Crawford also had high praise for the Raider defense. “Our defense has improved all season. I’m proud of the coaches and players for having stayed the course we wanted to go.”
“We were able to step up and stop their run game and we did a great job on their play action passes,” he related. “Our guys play very hard and run to the football. They give a great effort to get the ball out (for takeaways).”
Coming into the playoffs, Crawford was emphasizing for his team the need to improve on their turnover ratio and they have responded. During the regular season, the Raiders had come away with 24 fumbles or interceptions, but had also given away 20. In the past two weeks, that number has improved to 5-to-1 with a trio of “picks” and a pair of fumble recoveries.
“This time of year you can’t afford to give these quality of teams extra chances,” the second-year Raider coach declared. “You’ve got to hold onto the football.”
Cleveland had a pair of interceptions and pounced on a loose ball, all three of which led to Raider points in Friday’s victory.
Winning the coin toss and electing to receive the opening kickoff, Rhea got a quick taste of what was in store for them on the cold, damp night. After junior linebacker Austin Massey hit the Eagle ball carrier in the backfield on the first play from scrimmage and threw him for a three-yard loss, the second play went to the air but senior DJ Jones picked off the pass.
Taking over on their own 23, Cleveland powered its way down the field with Bunion and senior QB Austin Herink running the ball or teaming up on a pair of passes to set up Parker’s first score of the night from 10-yards out. The Raiders got a good omen when sophomore Oscar Galvan slipped while kicking the extra point. The ball hit the crossbar but spun on through the uprights for a 7-0 lead five and a half minutes into the contest.
Galvan capped an eight-play, 52-yard second quarter march with a 16-yard field goal. Four plays after the ensuing kickoff, the Eagles fumbled the snap and Raider Darius Pillow pounced on the pigskin.
Taking over on their own 36, Parker ripped off a 34-yard run on the first play of the series and then eight plays later carried the rock in from the 8. Galvan tacked on the extra point with 1:08 on the first half clock.
Getting the second half kickoff, Davis returned it 39 yards to the Raider 41. Facing a third-and-two a few moments later, Herink scrambled away from pressure and found Bunion for a 36-yard gain to move the ball into the Red Zone.
After Bunion moved the ball to the 4 yard line with an 11-yard jaunt, the Rhea defense stiffened with a tackle for loss and then picked up a pass in the back of the end zone for a touchback.
With a spark of hope, the Eagles, who had been averaging more than 40 points and 360-yards of offense an outing during their first 11 games, put together it’s only scoring drive of the night. The hosts used 20 plays, converted a trio of fourth down plays and chewed up more than eight minutes off the clock before senior Dimitrius Patterson caught a 10-yard pass from classmate Austin Dotson for the touchdown.
Cleveland answered right back with an 80-yard, eight-play march that saw Bunion carry the mail a half dozen times for 60 yards, including a 37-yard dash. After seven straight running plays, the Raiders went to the air with Herink hitting Jones for a six-yard scoring strike with 8:47 to go in the contest.
On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, the Cleveland defense struck again with Parker picking off a pass and returning it 22 yards to the Rhea 13 yard line.
After Bunion moved the ball to the 6 on the first play, a sack and a personal foul penalty on the Raiders moved the ball back to the 28. Undaunted, Herink found senior Tyler Davis on a fade pass into the end zone on the following snap. Galvan tacked on the final point of the night with 7:10 remaining.
“This was one of our best efforts of the season,” declared Coach Crawford. “You want to be peaking in the playoffs and I think we’re doing just that.”